Groping my way in the darkness towards the alarm this morning, sliding into the shower vaguely conscious and casually cladding myself in garments that mean I appear at least somewhat respectable from the waist up to my online students, I remember other January mornings of other Spring terms – and however undesirable our particular current conditions are, I assure you I’ve had far more unpleasant starts to the new year!
Take the Spring term – an inappropriate name for a stretch of some 3 months spent mostly freezing and chipping ice from windscreens – of 1978. Most of you probably have no instant recall of the early months of that year. Some of you were small children and many others not even born.
But I was.
And I was embarking on a full term of teaching practice.
Any teachers out there will recognise the horrors of teaching practice when you are not even being paid for your exhausting efforts of trying to be the most dynamic and inspirational figure that has ever stood in front of a class of disaffected and enormous 14 year olds whose names you don’t even know.
My teaching practice was in Abingdon and I was a lodger on the fourth floor of a Victorian house in Oxford, living alongside another student and a family of five. A lovely family, warm and friendly and delightful, who were, nevertheless, the most untidy and chaotic people I have ever met in my entire life. There were objects on every surface, the smell of cooking – in particular, frying – perpetually hanging around and endless bicycles and books and shoes and boots cluttering the long, narrow hallway on the ground floor.
And there was, of course, as was normal in 1978, one bathroom for all of us. And one toilet inside that bathroom.
Mornings were, to say the least, challenging. The trick was to get down four flights of stairs and into that bathroom before the rest of the family possessed it, draining it of all hot water and any semblance of floor space to stand on that was not covered in discarded, wet towels.
It meant a very, very early alarm.
And, of course, the house had no central heating. I had a small electric fire in my slip of an attic bedroom and can still remember the way I used to push off heavy blankets (duvets? Get real and wait another few years …) and leap for the switch to the fire, grab dressing gown and slippers (when you are in your very early 20s the sight was probably not as unappealing as it now sounds)and hurtle down the four floors in hope of being the first to reach the bathroom which was in the basement of the house.
And there was snow that winter. And in 1978 there was no such expression as snow days. No-one cared if students – we still called them pupils then – slipped and broke ankles in the playground or if teachers’ cars slid precariously around the car park endangering lives.
It was the Spring term of 1978 that made me acutely aware of the slender gain in light that slowly grows daily – I used to drive home from Abingdon to my tiny room in the house on Botley Road, watching for signs of more light in the sky, daffodils in the hedgerows, clutches of crocuses – counting the days to the end of dreaded teaching practice …
Later, even once I’d acquired my own bathroom, Januaries remained bleak.
Who finds getting up and dressing in the dark an attractive notion at any time? The impossibility of distinguishing dark navy opaque tights from black ones is the first challenge of the day and there is nothing worse than reaching break time and realising that you made the wrong choice and that your style conscious class of 15 year old girls have been judging you for it all morning.
And classrooms in January are either freezing or smelly and stuffy. There seems to be no middle ground. Possibly it’s the same with offices, but never having grown up enough to leave the environment of school I wouldn’t know.
So forgive me for sounding all Pollyanna like, counting blessings and all that, but there are worse things (providing you are well and fortunate enough to have space and sufficient food to eat) than this particular January. At the moment at least.
Take even this particular morning.
My 8.00 am class of year 7 students had no idea I hadn’t made my bed, was wearing Tesco’s best leggings and sweatshirt, hadn’t fed the cats, properly brushed my hair or taken my Vitamin D tablet. Granted, the internet was not at its best – I couldn’t hear half of what they were saying – but that wasn’t my fault. (or at least I don’t think it was) I could airily blame Teams, blame area difficulties and wish them on their way at the end of the lesson and head for the kitchen.
To make a pot of good coffee to my own liking – to stack the dishwasher, the washing machine, placate the cats, plump the sofa cushions – attend to all those other bits of life – and spend an hour or so working on novel 4 before my next lesson.
The warmth of hearth and home and the ability to earn money without leaving it.
For me, it certainly beats spraying the windscreen with de-icer – or if you are like me, remembering at the critical moment you haven’t bought any – searching for gloves, forgetting books, returning to collect them, urging your eyes to open wide enough to negotiate dark roads and treacherous surfaces.
So although January 2021 might not be anyone’s ideal month of their lifetime, I can tell you one thing.
It beats a lot of others for me.
And it certainly beats January 1978 – that time way back in the 20th century when, despite what now seems like my idyllic youth, was, in fact, my equivalent of annus horribilis all rolled into one month!